The nation has laid witness to the dominance of Stephen Strasburg and now it’s time for the Washington Nationals to claim their spot amongst the upper echelon of baseball.
While it is obvious that this franchise has been in a shambles for years, the Nationals benefited from their ineptitude by getting Strasburg and teenage hitting phenomenon Bryce Harper. These unique talents are once in a generation talents that will become cornerstones of championship quality teams.
Having both Strasburg and Harper, in addition to Ryan Zimmerman and Drew Storen, gives the Nationals four players who each solidify specific needs found on dynastic teams (i.e. the Yankees' big four of Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera).
The assets the Nationals have acquired during these years of loss and disappointment situate them to make a serious push in the next few seasons. This push could last for at least a decade.
If you look at similar franchises and project the future salary budget of this team in a major media market it would reasonable to see them with $100 to $140 million payroll. Their current payroll is $61.5 million and roughly half of what it will be once they are ready to become a contender.
Here is a reasonable blueprint for the Nationals path to a championship:
(At the beginning of this upcoming off-season, the Nationals will have only $24.4 million committed dollars that could grow to $52 million through arbitration.)
1. Lockup the foursome immediately. Give Zimmerman a 10 year, $150 million dollar deal. How about a 12 year, $200 million for Strasburg? Harper would be a steal at 10 years, $170 million. Storen could be a little more economical at 8 years, $48 million.
(The payroll would climb up to $67.4 of guaranteed cash before arbitration. Let’s call it $85 million.)
2. What to do with Adam Dunn. Dunn has been a loyal and productive player without complaining or demanding a trade. He wants to be in Washington and it would make sense to keep unless another team offers up a few choice prospects. It would make sense to sign him unless they…
3. Make room for Prince Fielder. Fielder will be a free agent following next season and that would fit with the arrival of Bryce Harper. A 3-4-5 punch of Harper-Zimmerman-Fielder would be among baseball’s best. The trio would produce the runs that have eluded the Nationals this year and in years past.
(Payroll with Dunn $100 million, with Fielder $103, with another lesser known first baseman $91 million)
4. Sign or trade for a top of the rotation pitcher. Strasburg is going to be a star and will be an ace for several years, but a pennant caliber team needs two guys at the top of their rotation. The pitching free agent market looks bleak and there is only one man to be had. His name is Cliff Lee and he will be available after this season. While it is highly unlikely Lee would sign with a team not ready to contend, it is worth making a pitch to bring him in. A signing like this and bringing in Fielder would make waves in baseball and establish the Nationals as a championship contender.
(Payroll with Lee is $120 million.)
5. Complementary pieces put in place. The Nationals have pieces ready to fill these roles. Ian Desmond is a year or two away from being a solid infielder who could give them power in the bottom half of the lineup, and possibly become an option at the 2-hole.
The rotation, as presently constructed, has three started who could fill out the rest of the rotation: John Lannan, Scott Olsen and a healthy Jordan Zimmerman.Tyler Clippard is a solid seventh inning guy and could help their eighth inning setup man. The other pitchers vying for rotation spots could be used to fill out the bullpen. For instance maybe Detwiler becomes a lefty specialist or he claims a rotation spot.
6. Players on the horizon. What is left to be said about Bryce Harper? Virtually everyone agrees that Harper will be a unique talent and can be penciled in for several All-Star appearances. However it makes sense for Harper to become the everyday right fielder so that could allow another prospect Derek Norris to handle the catching duties beginning next year. Norris could learn a lot from Pudge and the transition could also extend Rodriguez’s career another season as he shares catching duties with Norris.
Chris Marrero could start the switch from playing first base and be groomed to be Willingham’s left field replacement. His experience at first base could come in handy if they don’t pursue the two options previously suggested for the position. Danny Espinosa will allow Ian Desmond to move over to second base allowing Espinosa to play his natural position where he excels at.
7. Feed the farm. The farm system has begun to yield some pro-level talent and there will be more to come, but it is important to continue acquiring assets and nurture their young talent. This process could see an influx at the trading deadline if the Nationals decide to move some of their veterans for prospects.
Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Jason Marquis could bring back a few players who could help the team down the road. This process was hindered greatly by the wrongdoings of the previous regime and it is important Rizzo continues the development if this talent resource.
How about this 2012 Opening Day roster:
Fielder or Dunn-1B
Rotation and bullpen:
Setup: Detwiler and Clippard
TOTAL PAYROLL: $125 million
The future is beginning to look like a full ballpark and talent on the field that could be a once-in-a-generation experience that will continue to be appointment television and attendance. A dynasty is coming at all of us quickly.